Moving a ball from one peg built to keep it about a foot off the ground to its twin sitting across a field or classroom.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Then add in a metal ring to balance the ball on, several pieces of string to lift it up and about eight or 10 students, faculty members or staff all with their own strategies and plans to get from Point A to Point B. Then you have a challenge, one of several teambuilding, communication and problem-solving exercises offered by Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness at Temple University Ambler.

"At first everyone has different strategies, but you have to work together as a team to succeed. Sometimes you have to take a step back and decide to make a game plan together— we worked with Steve Sassaman (Assistant Director for Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness) and he did a great job of guiding us through the process," said Political Science and Philosophy major and Temple Student Government (TSG) Chief of Staff Bridget Frame, who along with her fellow TSG members participated in teambuilding exercises at Temple Ambler in fall 2023. "Coming up to Temple Ambler was the perfect opportunity to work on teambuilding and feeling more comfortable with each other — you need to learn to play to everyone's strengths. I think that even if problems or hurdles come up, we'll be able to overcome them because we did these activities."

Since designing and constructing a Low Ropes Challenge Course at Temple Ambler in summer and fall 2022, Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness has offered dozens of teambuilding and outdoor experiential learning opportunities for students, faculty and staff utilizing both the challenge course and portable challenge elements that can be taken anywhere at the University and beyond.

"The primary goal of our challenge course, outdoor experiential learning programs and nature-based wellness experiences is building positive community and connections with one another. There's been a lot of talk about stress, anxiety and depression and seeing those rates rise," said Sassaman, who joined the Temple team in summer 2022. "It's really important to identify the support you receive from your community, whether it be co-workers or fellow students. I think we too often talk about fun as not being of value in modern society, especially in a work setting. Our programs bringing back that sense of joy and how we can create joy from developing genuine connections and relationships with those who are around us — it's one of the most important outcomes from these programs."

According to Sassaman, people across Temple community "are really excited about the opportunity to bring the students they work with or their co-workers onto the course and see what we can offer with our programs."

"There is a challenge there, but the challenge might just be working on helping someone bring forth a creative idea or solution. One of the really cool aspects of the programs we offer is that they allow people to feel comfortable to just throw something out there and see what sticks without feeling judged," he said. "That generates even more ideas and creativity. Before you know it, they are having fun and learning how to work together."

Beware of Alligators

The state-of-the-art Temple Ambler challenge course facility features a total of 15 elements. Student organizations, classroom teams, research interns and more are able to explore the teambuilding opportunities offered through the challenge course. Programs for the course are conducted in 2-, 4-, or 6-hour experiences and highlight problem-solving, conflict resolution and foster trust within a group or team, according to Sassaman. Student groups may reserve the space here. Temple departments, academic units, faculty and staff may reserve the space here.

Since its inception, the challenge course has welcomed students from the Temple Honors Program, the Health Sciences Campus Student Faculty Center (SFC) and the Cecil B. Moore Scholars, among many others. The course has become a popular part of New Student Orientation experiences and Temple Wellness Day events, which have welcomed hundreds of students to Temple Ambler for a day focused on taking a deep breath and de-stressing.

The challenge course has additionally played host to cooperative learning exercises by Temple University Undergraduate Admissions, Temple University University College staff and administrators, Information Technology Services and more for programs highlighting teambuilding, creativity, communication and thinking outside the box, according to Sassaman.

In addition to the skills learned through using the challenge course elements, there is also another important incentive for group success — avoiding the alligators…metaphorically speaking.

"The alligator platforms are one of the more challenging elements for sure," Sassaman said. "The goal is to get your entire team from Platform 1 to Platform 2 to Platform 3 using just two beams to balance on from platform to platform."

If someone "falls" in they are a snack for the, thankfully imaginary, alligators.

"You have to develop a plan before you hop out onto the platform; you have to think about what resources you have before you're actually using them. Often with a lot of activities there are students who are more outspoken, and they will get right out of there, but you need the planners, the people that are thinking through the aspects of the challenge," Sassaman said. "As facilitators, we're constantly aware of the dynamics that are playing out and we'll challenge those individuals who are always ready to jump right in to take a step back, assess the situation and include the ideas of others — let's look at all of the strengths, skills and abilities that each person individually brings to the team."

According to Tim Bradley, Assistant Director of Campus Activities, SFC Activities or Operations, Sassaman "and the team at Temple Ambler provide such a great atmosphere and experience for students and staff alike."

"Their workshops and teambuilding activities that tie into the beauty and nature of the campus give the stress relief we all need and create lasting memories for yourself and your team," he said.

For Temple Honors Program student leaders and staff, who experienced the alligator platforms firsthand, "the activities were appropriately challenging and invigorating for us to learn about teamwork, active listening and community building," said Jackie Lopez, Academic Advisor for the Temple Honors Program. 

"We appreciated the experiential learning aspect as well as being able to reflect and debrief as a group to strengthen and grow both individually and collectively," she said.

Sassaman said whether it's a first-year student, a student leader, a department director or a faculty member, "we want everyone who participates in our programs to develop a positive sense of self identity and a positive sense of group identity, recognizing the individual strengths, skills and abilities that you bring to the team but also recognizing how you play a critical role in the group that you are a part of."

Let the Challenge Come to You

In addition to the outdoor challenge course facility, Temple Ambler Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness has multiple portable elements that can deliver programs at any location, indoors or out, at Temple. Options for the portable elements include 1-, 2-, or 4- hour experiences.

The portable experiential learning experiences have become a mainstay at Welcome Weeks at both Temple Ambler and Main Campus, Homecoming events, Experience Temple Days, Admitted Student Receptions, First-Year Experience programs at Temple Ambler and department retreats.

"It's really important to bond with the group or team you are working with. It's essential to know your peers and to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can build off of each other," said Political Science major and Chief Internal Services Officer for Temple Student Government, who also participated in teambuilding activities using the portable elements in Fall 2023. "I would definitely tell other students and Temple organizations to try these programs. After participating, I feel like I'm closer to my team members and I feel that we can talk to each other and work together better just by coming here."

With the portable elements, Sassaman said, often the programs are more focused on the critical thinking skills involved in the various challenges.

"We might focus on important team concepts like conflict resolution and communication; you can add different modifiers to the exercise. They may have to communicate in different ways rather than direct instructions — someone might be blindfolded and have to depend on another member of their team to guide them to an objective," he said. "We cater the program to the needs of the group. When an organization or department comes to us to develop a program, I'll have some questions about their primary goals and what they want to achieve — what are some concerns they have as a group and how can we focus on that through the challenge activities."

Students Become the Facilitators

With both the low ropes challenge course and the portable challenge elements, students have the opportunity to become program facilitators.

Challenge Course Facilitators are responsible for delivering programming utilizing the low ropes facility at Temple Ambler. Facilitators guide participants through a progression of teambuilding and problem-solving activities ranging from three-hour to full-day programs.

Nature-Based Wellness Facilitators deliver programming utilizing the outdoor facilities at Temple Ambler, such as the gardens of the Ambler Arboretum. According to Sassman, Nature-Based Facilitators guide participants through wellness programming utilizing experiential modalities, including horticulture and expressive arts therapy techniques. Students interested in becoming facilitators should contact Steve Sassaman at 267-468-8107 or 

"We hold ongoing training programs for student facilitators throughout the year. It is about six hours of training and then the students work closely with a mentor. I think there are a huge range of benefits for students interested in becoming facilitators," Sassaman said. "In any professional field they are looking for students that can communicate effectively, who recognize differences and value diversity, who are skilled at problem-solving and risk management — not just physical risk but emotional risk. I recruit students who have a genuine interest in developing those skills."

Sassaman said a critical component to the challenge programs provided by ROW are the reflective elements, the opportunities to assess and explore the experience.   

"There's a lot of group processing, debriefing and use of metaphor to reflect on what is going on in your life — how do these challenges and exercises represent something that is in your everyday life," he said. "We're not just processing the activity. We're taking it to that next step of exploring the broader applications."

The planning process — putting together the program plan, developing the logistics, working with other student facilitators and working with Sassaman — "provides a lot of very important pieces that will help students in their future careers as well as their personal lives as they realize they can think creatively and they can guide an often diverse group of people with a wide range of interests and motivations."

Elo Bridget Osigho, a graduate student in the Financial Analysis program in the Fox School of Business, said her experience as an Experiential Education Facilitator "involved team bonding exercises with sororities, fraternities, clubs and diverse groups of students from different regions and countries, which has not only strengthened the bonds within these groups but has also equipped me with valuable skills."

"It has strengthened my leadership abilities and refined my communication skills. Guiding and coordinating activities for these diverse groups required adaptability, empathy and the capacity to think on my feet — these qualities have been invaluable in navigating various challenges and working collaboratively with team members," she said. "The ability to foster inclusivity, facilitate effective communication, and lead diverse teams has translated seamlessly into my personal relationships being a foreign national myself, allowing me to better understand and appreciate diverse perspectives, resolve conflicts effectively, and foster stronger connections. This has undoubtedly shaped my personal growth and contributed to my everyday life and future professional endeavors."

Keeping Wellness in Mind

Sometimes you just need to take a moment to breathe. In addition to the low ropes and portable challenge programs, Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness also offers wellness and mindfulness programs that connect participants with the calm, verdant surroundings of Temple Ambler "in many novel ways that can help augment retreat or teambuilding experiences," said Sassaman. Programs are about 60 minutes but may be tailored to specific group/team goals, he said.

Programs include Contemplative Connections: Forest Bathing (Shinrin Yoku), Mindful Movement: Fox Walk, Yoga in the Gardens, Mindfulness Activities, Nature-based Plant Identification and Scavenger Hunt, and Labyrinth Self-discovery and Reflection. Learn more about the individual programs here.

"There is extensive research that suggests that simply immersing yourself under tree canopies can lead to a reduction in symptoms related to stress, anxiety and depression, as well as bringing about physiological benefits such as lowering blood pressure — that is what forest bathing is all about," said Sassaman. "The fox walk is a nature walking experience that guides individuals to practice walking similarly to a fox. This is an experience where individuals focus on stepping each foot with an awareness of self, their environment and their impact on the surrounding environment."

In our current society, Sassaman said, people often sit in a building in front of a computer all day. They then drive home with little opportunities to divest themselves of the day's stresses and plant themselves in front a television just for a bit of relaxation.

"Our programs are designed to help people take a step back and reconnect because so often we are focused on constantly moving and going. We want to help people purposefully live their lives, not just move through them," he said. "We as humans are a part of nature. I think we forget that sometimes."

Taking the Challenge Into the Classroom

According to Sassaman, after the Adventure Challenge Program course offered by the Recreational Therapy Department in the College of Public Health was developed as a three-credit, full semester course, "the Ambler Campus challenge course has been fully integrated into that program."

"I am teaching the Adventure Programming class this semester. For their final, the students will facilitate a program on the challenge course that will be part of Recreational Therapy's upcoming Recreational Therapy Evidence-Based Practice Conference and a program developed by the Boyer College of Music and Dance, the Temple Ambler Field Station and the Ambler Arboretum called (Re)Charge: An Arbor Day Event," he said. "People at the conference and at the Arbor Day festivities will be able to participate in their challenge course program. It's a workshop opportunity giving people a chance to see what the ropes course is all about."

The Recreational Therapy Evidence-Based Practice Conference will be held at Temple Ambler on Friday, April 26, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Register online here. A virtual conference will also be held from Tuesday, April 30 through Tuesday, May 7. Register online for the virtual conference here. CEUs are available at both the in-person and virtual programs.

(Re)Charge: An Arbor Day Event will be held on Friday, April 26 (rain or shine) at Temple Ambler. Register online here. (Re)Charge will include musical performances, dance performances, art installations, interactive art activities that are fun for all ages, and interactive sculptures. View the full schedule.

According to Sassaman, additional courses are being developed to utilize the unique resources that Temple Ambler has to offer, which will be available during the fall 2024 semester — Gardening for Lifelong Wellness and Wilderness, First Aid and Ethics course.

The Adventure Programming class is also partnering with the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association to learn about "how you can use orienteering for team building and therapeutic adventure work," Sassaman said. 

"The DVOA have created an orienteering competition map of the Ambler Campus. They are talking to our students about how orienteering is another modality you can use for problem-solving and improving communication," he said. "There are different ways you can modify it — maybe one person has the compass, and one person has the map. We'd like to begin to offer orienteering as part of department and staff retreats at Temple."

On the Horizon

As the Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness programs continue to develop and grow in its second year "we're working with the Temple Honors program to pilot new, intentional student programming at the beginning of the semesters," Sassaman said.

"We really want to open that up and develop an inclusive program with Temple's schools and colleges. I'd also like to continue to work on connecting with more of Temple's student organizations in addition to Temple departments, faculty and staff," he said. "The challenge course presents a unique opportunity to bring people out to campus. Every time I see a student come to campus it almost seems like they remember that it's okay to stop and take a breath. Utilizing the course to bring people to campus gives our visitors the opportunity to explore the Arboretum, to learn about different courses and programs."

On Sunday, April 28, Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness will be providing various activities "to highlight all of the great things we having going on at Temple Ambler, including some or our teambuilding experiences and some of our contemplative practices," Sassaman said, following the inaugural Temple University Bike Tour. Learn more about the Bike Tour here.

"I think this event is a really critical part of Temple's overall mission of promoting awareness advocacy and also leveraging some of the research that is going on through a lot of different colleges at Temple around topics like nature-based wellness, the things in our lives that impact our social and emotional wellbeing," he said. "This event is a really good catalyst program to create some positive community relations between Temple and the surrounding communities."

Working closely with Temple New Student and Family Programs, Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness is also getting ready for a big OwlVenture.

"OwlVenture is an extended student orientation program that we are piloting this year, part of Temple's outdoor wellness retention initiatives that the Ambler Campus is helping to spearhead, that will take place on June 27 and 28 and July 23 and 24," said Sassaman. "After their orientation at Main Campus, first-year students will travel out to Temple Ambler for a pool party, barbeque, night orienteering adventure and s'mores around the campfire. The next morning, they will take part in a challenge course experience and then a picnic lunch in the gardens."

According to Sassaman, students will not have to worry about setting up their own tents for the overnight camping experience — they will already be set up when they arrive.

"A lot of other universities provide an overnight experience where students can build a cohort, so they have a peer support network, they have a greater sense of belonging at the University," he said. "There is a lot of research that suggests these types of programs improve students' academic performance. Students who participate in these types of programs are also more likely to persist to graduation. We're hoping that this pilot program will go well and that we can potentially expand on it in the future."

Camping will also be the highlight of the day when Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness hosts the Temple Ambler Campout (formerly the Great American Campout) at Temple Ambler from Saturday, September 21 to Sunday, September 22.

"I think there is value for really every Temple community in the programs that we have been offering and will continue to build on. I have worked my entire career doing this, from working with young kids to working with individuals who are senior members of their organizations or companies," Sassaman said. "These are not cookie-cutter programs. We design a program that's based off of an individual groups' needs. We process and debrief the activities based off of what the group presents to us as their goals."

Sassaman said he hopes that people participating in Recreation, Outdoor Education & Wellness offerings "ultimately come out with a positive experience."

"I also hope they come out recognizing the intrinsic value that they themselves bring to the world and how they can go about and really show that they can contribute and be an effective, positive leader within their communities," he said. "Everyone has the capacity to lead. It's just a matter of identifying what it is that motives them — finding that passion that can ignite how you can contribute through your unique skills, talents and abilities."